Volume XI, Issue 45 ~ November 6-12, 2003

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Carr-Tunes ~ by Steve Carr

Waterman’s Blues
A waterman’s life Is hard as granite

I have been thinking lately about the plight of the Chesapeake Bay waterman. It’s a mental exercise sort of like picking at an open wound. Times are tough for those who still earn their living from the Bay.

It was not always so. We’ve all heard the amazing stories about the oyster bars big enough to be navigational hazards and clam-shell Indian middens that lined the shores of most creeks. You need only take a drive along the Bay, from Annapolis to Solomons, to see the living legacies of Bay watermen. Edgewater, Galesville, Shady Side, Deale, Solomons: every one of these small towns was built in large part by the blood, sweat and tears of the local watermen.

In the old days — which, as a point of reference, ended in the early 1970s — waterfront communities along both the Eastern and Western Shores were essentially watermen’s towns. White workboats with graceful and utilitarian lines dominated the heart of each fishing village, where a sheltered harbor was home to the local fleet. The focus of each of these fine towns was outward toward the Bay.

Times have changed. The old seaside towns of the Western Shore have been slowly morphing into Yuptown Villages. The watermen’s shanties have been replaced by summer cottages for the Washington set, and the harbors are now filled with large pleasure craft and fancy sailboats. The deadrise and draketail workboats are slowly vanishing into the mist of lost memories.

Over on the Eastern Shore, the historic Bay fishing villages still have a toehold. Little towns like Saxis, Willis Wharf and Wachapreague still cling tenaciously to the past as the men and women whose families have wrung a living from the sea for many generations still try to make an honest wage from the Bay. The thing you notice the most about these marshy towns is how old their inhabitants are. Where are the kids? I always wonder as I drive through a little town like Oyster, Virginia. The next generation has moved away to the spreading cities — Virginia Beach, Salisbury, Dover — in search of easier pickings.

Hunting and gathering has always been a difficult and dangerous way of life. It requires trust in the weather and Mother Nature, a risky proposition at best. Only a hard-crab kind of man would stake the future on something so unpredictable and unsteady.

A waterman just can’t count on any fishery these days. The oysters have been decimated by diseases like Dermo, the clams died off years ago and bait-fish numbers are in free-fall decline. Now, the one staple that could be counted on — the blue crab — has become harder and harder to find — except in autumn, by which time crab eaters have resigned themselves to going hungry another year.

That’s why the young folk of the watermen’s villages are leaving. They have heard their grandfathers tell how when they returned home from World War II, an oysterman could make five times as much off the water as almost anyone working the land. Watermen were rich by any standard. They owned their property free and clear. They tithed to the church. Life was good. But the dynamic has changed.

Everything these days is more expensive — fuel, wages, traps — and every single fishery is in the proverbial tank. So, the young people move on, abandoning the water way of life in favor of a guaranteed paycheck, often in construction. They make their living transforming Bay villages into suburban replicas of what was, putting even more economic pressure on the local watermen. It’s a nasty cycle that is changing the waterfront face of Chesapeake Bay forever. Or at least until the next monster hurricane.

Turning Watermen into Fish Farmers
Those watermen who continue to maintain a death-grip hold on their traditional way of life are being encouraged by the states of Maryland and Virginia to “diversify.” Translation: become aqua farmers and raise toy fish. This, of course, mirrors the historical path of civilization. Our ancestors went from hunting and gathering to farming. Why not today’s watermen?

There is certainly nothing wrong with farming. Nor is there really much difference between raising chickens and fish. You just need a big barn, some high-protein food and some pumps. Then feed ’em, clean ’em, and harvest the profit. It can be quite lucrative.

But farmers and watermen are not so much alike. Each springs from a different ethic. One is free to roam the waves, while the other is chained inseparably to the land.

The other key trouble with turning watermen into fish farmers is that a way of life is lost. When you start messing around with tradition, you move quickly into the realm of mythology.

Even Myths Die
Culturally, we have spent centuries creating the myth of the waterman: The noble man of the sea, out on the water before dawn, in all sorts of weather … the rugged individualist who helped to carve hardy little towns out of native shorelines … self-employed tradesmen, dependent on nothing but their wits and resourcefulness … Christian men and women steeped in local knowledge and full of wonderful stories and real down-home charm. We all have this storybook vision of watermen, sitting on the porch of the general store after a tough day on the water, regaling friends and families about life out on the Bay. The myth of the waterman is reinforced daily in our stories, songs and paintings. Like the myth of the cowboy, it will live in our dreams long after the real watermen have vanished. But not forever.

A few years back, I was working on a project with the city of Annapolis to develop a street-end park at the end of Northwest Street. That’s in the Clay Street part of town, an historic and vibrant African American community on the shores of College Creek. As part of the park plan, I envisioned a large dock that could be used by the community to moor small boats, to crab and fish and generally get back in touch with the water. When I went to the first community meeting and showed the neighbors our plan for this new park, do you know what the uniform concern was? The dock.

“We don’t want that dock,” they told me in one strong voice. “The water is dangerous. There are snakes. Our children will fall in and drown. We’d rather see you fence off the end of the street from the water.”

I didn’t know what to say. Here was a community that had historically had its fair share of watermen, starting well before the Civil War. Clay Street men and women once drew their livelihood from the waters of the Severn River and beyond. In fact, their dead workboats still line the headwaters of College Creek like abandoned memories. In the space of one generation, the hard-working people of Clay Street have lost a huge chunk of their storied past. An entire way of life has been forgotten, and the Bay has become something alien and dangerous to them. How does such a thing happen?

In the end, the city abandoned its plan to build the dock at the end of Northwest Street. There will be a nice peaceful park overlooking the shady shores of College Creek. And maybe this park will one day spark more interest in the water for the people of Clay Street. I don’t know.

What I do know is that a waterman’s life is hard as granite. I know that what once was isn’t necessarily what will be. Most of all, I know we all must do a much better job of saving the Bay.

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Last updated November 6, 2003 @ 2:07am.